Erin Einhorn – Daily Detroit http://www.dailydetroit.com What To Know And Where To Go In Metro Detroit Wed, 12 Sep 2018 01:37:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 A Mold-Infested Detroit School Will Be Closed For The Rest Of The Year http://www.dailydetroit.com/2018/03/15/mold-infested-detroit-school-will-closed-rest-year/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2018/03/15/mold-infested-detroit-school-will-closed-rest-year/#respond Thu, 15 Mar 2018 18:22:00 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=41133 A water-damaged, mold-infested elementary school building in northwest Detroit will be closed for the rest of the school year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti notified the school board about plans for the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy during a board meeting Tuesday night that became so raucous, the board called a recess for nearly an hour before voting to end the meeting without addressing most of the items on its agenda.

The meeting was ended after security guards attempted to remove a loud protester from the meeting, prompting objections from her supporters.

Vitti told the board that the 500 students at Palmer Park will be relocated to two nearby schools.

“Starting on Monday,” Vitti said, Palmer Park classes will resume “in other buildings where we have space.”

Specifically, he said, elementary school students will likely go to the now-closed former Catherine Ferguson building and middle school students will move into extra classroom space at Bethune Elementary-Middle School. Bus transportation will be provided, he said.

The district is checking to see if this week’s five-day closure will require the district to add extra hours to comply with state class time requirements.

The potentially dangerous health conditions in the school, which teachers say caused some educators to become ill, were among several matters that had a large group of protesters angry with Vitti and board.

Earlier, protesters led by activist Helen Moore had loudly urged the board as it met at Mumford High School to discuss Mayor Mike Duggan’s plans, announced during last week’s State of the City address, to create collaborations between district and charter schools to grade Detroit schools and to work together on student transportation.

The activists warned that the mayor was trying to usurp the authority of the elected board.

“That’s how they take over,” Moore shouted.

The crowd also shouted loudly as Vitti discussed the district’s response to the Palmer Park situation, suggesting the district had put children’s health in harm’s way at buildings throughout the district.

Vitti acknowledged that the condition of district buildings is poor.

“I still am horrified by the overall condition of our buildings, specifically at certain locations,” Vitti said. “But I will continue to say that if you look at the day-to-day operations and use of these buildings, children are safe.”

When the audience yelled “nooo,” Vitti defended himself.

“I have nothing … to offer but integrity. My name is attached to this work,” Vitti said, noting that he has four children enrolled in the district. “If there is a child that is in harm’s way … then I will act immediately.”

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations.

But that timeline isn’t fast enough for one school board member.

“The building assessment won’t be ready until it’s almost time to return to school for the 18-19 school year,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. He blasted the Palmer Park situation as a “public relations nightmare.”

“If we don’t put in some damage control and get ahead of this, people will have a poor perception of the district, not only at Palmer Park but in its entirety,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools their content is syndicated on Daily Detroit with permission.

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Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan Is Looking For Ways To Impact Schools http://www.dailydetroit.com/2018/02/09/detroit-mayor-mike-duggan-looking-ways-impact-schools/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2018/02/09/detroit-mayor-mike-duggan-looking-ways-impact-schools/#respond Fri, 09 Feb 2018 21:36:07 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=40828 After largely steering clear of education during his first term, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is now looking for ways to become more invested in the city schools.

City Hall is already leading an effort called the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative that will put more social workers, therapists, and family support staff into schools. But the mayor is also having conversations with education and civic leaders about ways he can have a more significant impact on the state of education in the city. The low test scores and poor conditions in Detroit schools are often cited as the largest roadblock to the city’s recovery.  

What the mayor’s involvement will look like — and how it will go over with school leaders and parents wary of government involvement after years of state intervention in city schools — is still not clear.

“We’re trying to explore every lever that we can possibly pull to ensure that there are good schools in Detroit, so that’s what we’re looking at,” said Eli Savit, a top advisor to Duggan. “We don’t control the schools. We don’t want to control the schools. But anything we can do to help, we’re willing to do and that can take a number of different forms.”

A recent report from a prominent group of business and civic leaders called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren anticipated a possible role for the mayor.

One of the coalition’s recommendations was to “Ask the Mayor to work with Coalition leadership to facilitate education ecosystem planning for the City of Detroit and appoint highly credible Detroiters” to work with him.

The coalition said it would ask the mayor to get involved in several delicate — and possibly divisive — issues including working with state education officials to “set school quality standards for all schools.” That could take many forms but some school advocates have raised concerns that the mayor could decide to issue letter grades or otherwise pick winners and losers in a city where most experts expect some low-performing, half-full schools to close in coming years.

The coalition also asked the mayor to take the lead on finding common ground between the city’s combative district and charter school leaders. The coalition report calls for a “charter-district compact that reviews, discusses, and presents plans for better coordination and transparency about school openings and school closings,” and that finds “opportunities for citywide collaboration in areas such as a centralized data system and a campaign to address chronic absences.” The recommendations assert that this compact should not make decisions about openings and closings or “usurp the authority” of district and charter school leaders.

Savit said the mayor is taking those recommendations seriously.

“We heard that recommendation loud and clear,” Savit said. “The coalition was a diverse set of stakeholders that came to us with that recommendation. Of course we’re looking at it and how … to potentially move that forward.”

As mayor, Duggan does not have much power over schools. The city’s main district is now run by an elected school board after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers. The city’s 90 charter schools are run by a host of education management companies and organizations that report to charter school boards and are overseen by 11 different colleges, universities, and school districts.

The result is a sometimes chaotic environment in which schools compete with each other for students and staff and rarely share ideas or resources. It was a situation that some city leaders hoped to address two years ago through the creation of a mayor-led Detroit Education Commission that would oversee issues such as where new schools should locate and how school success should be measured.

Duggan vocally campaigned for the commission when it was being considered in the legislature in 2016, but the idea met with strong opposition from both charter school and district school supporters who raised concerns about how the mayor’s influence might affect schools.

The commission was ultimately defeated in a contentious, tearful, middle-of-the-night vote, without any support from Democrats.

Since then, Duggan has not said much about whether he would again try to get involved with schools. But community leaders say he’s been holding meetings in recent weeks to figure that out.

One effort that is already underway is the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative.

The success initiative is focused on expanding “wraparound services” for schools including social workers, therapists, and support staff that can help families facing homelessness, transportation challenges, health issues, and other problems that make it difficult for children to come to school and succeed.

Schools across the country are increasingly turning to wraparound services after recognizing that earlier efforts like creating new schools and putting pressure on teachers to boost test scores were not sufficient to help children living in poverty.  

Savit declined to comment on the initiative, beyond saying that it’s a work in progress that’s being led by the city health department.

“We’ve been pulling together stakeholders and having discussions,” he said. “But … there’s nothing to announce at this time.

Several people involved in the effort say it began with a three-year, $15 million grant from an organization called the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Rather than give the money to specific schools or districts, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority approached the city about leading the effort, said Bernard Parker who serves on the Authority board and is also the CEO of the Timbuktu Academy, a charter school on Detroit’s east side.  

The mayor is using the money as a starting point to raise additional funds, working with local charities and foundations, Parker said. “We would like to double the money to $10 million [a year].”

As for how to distribute the money once it’s raised, conversations are still preliminary, Parker said.

“The model that’s been talked about is having a nonprofit organization already involved collaborate with a school,” Parker said. “The nonprofit would get the grant and could collaborate with people at the school to do various supports.”

Some advocates are hoping that if Duggan can bring district and charter school leaders together around supporting families for the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative, that could lead to other kinds of collaborations, such as efforts to recruit and train educators to teach in Detroit.

“The concept was to be a catalyst for change,” said Tom Watkins, who as CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority last year first asked the authority’s board to find money for the initiative.

“If it’s just used as another funding source,” he said, “then we’ve missed an opportunity.”

Watkins, who was the state schools superintendent from 2001 to 2005, said he’s seen lots of money flow to lots of programs but their impact is often limited.

With this money, he said, “the whole concept was to pull the players together and to figure out ways in which we could really attack in a systematic way the issue of why kids aren’t successful. A lot of that resolves around the extra needs of children coming from poverty and all the social issues that go with that. What are the things outside of the academic environment that prevent children from succeeding?”

Watkins left the Mental Health Authority in August but said he was glad to hear that City Hall is moving the effort forward.

“The mayor is the epicenter to bring people together. Community groups, foundations, businesses, civic associations, whatever,” Watkins said. “Oftentimes, who convenes the meeting will bring players to the table.”

Chalkbeat Detroit

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with their permission.

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Elite Detroit High Schools Like Cass Tech & Renaissance Move Beyond Test Scores For Admittance http://www.dailydetroit.com/2018/01/20/elite-detroit-high-schools-like-cass-tech-renaissance-move-beyond-test-scores-admittance/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2018/01/20/elite-detroit-high-schools-like-cass-tech-renaissance-move-beyond-test-scores-admittance/#respond Sat, 20 Jan 2018 22:41:13 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=40573 Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

Chalkbeat Detroit

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. This content is shared with their permission.

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$50 Million Effort Aims To Improve Lives Of Detroit Kids http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/11/10/50-million-effort-aims-improve-lives-detroit-kids/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/11/10/50-million-effort-aims-improve-lives-detroit-kids/#respond Fri, 10 Nov 2017 19:35:23 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=39503 The two major foundations behind the creation of a ten-year plan to improve the lives of Detroit’s youngest children are putting up $50 million to help put the plan into action.

As they unveiled the new Hope Starts Here framework Friday morning, the Kellogg and Kresge foundations announced they would each spend $25 million in the next few years to improve the health and education of children aged birth to 8 in the city.

The money will go toward upgrading early childhood education centers, including a new Kresge-funded comprehensive child care center that the foundation says it hopes to break ground on next year at a location that has not yet been identified.

Other foundation dollars will go toward a just-launched centralized data system that will keep track of a range of statistics on the health and welfare of young children, and more training and support for early childhood educators.

The announcement at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History drew dozens of parents, educators and community leaders. Among them was Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti who said one of the major impediments to improving conditions for young children has been divisions between the various government and nonprofit entities that run schools, daycares and health facilities for young kids.

Vitti said the district would do its part to “to break down the walls of territorialism that has prevented this work from happening” in the past.

Watch the video of of the announcement here.

Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission. Meet the local writers of Chalkbeat here on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast.

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Dozens Of Detroit Schools Added To State’s List For Low Test Scores, But Forced Closure Not A Threat For Now http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/11/03/dozens-detroit-schools-added-states-list-low-test-scores-forced-closure-not-threat-now/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/11/03/dozens-detroit-schools-added-states-list-low-test-scores-forced-closure-not-threat-now/#respond Fri, 03 Nov 2017 17:15:46 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=39396 More than two dozen struggling Detroit schools will likely be added to the state’s “partnership” program after posting years of rock-bottom test scores.

That will bring to 50 the number of Detroit schools in the program, which requires schools to meet certain improvement targets or face consequences.

Those consequences could include closure or a staff shake-up but, for now at least, decisions about the schools’ fates will rest with local school boards. State officials say they currently have no plans to force schools to close.

That’s a big change from earlier this year when 38 schools across Michigan were told they were in danger of being shuttered after landing in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three years in a row.

Plans to close those schools were abandoned in the face of intense political opposition. Instead, the 37 schools that remained open (the one charter school on the list was closed by its authorizer) entered into “partnership agreements” with the state that require them to improve. (Read Detroit’s here).

On Monday, the state released a list of schools to be added to the partnership program. The state will now enter into negotiations with seven districts that don’t already have agreements. Among them are two Detroit charter schools — the David Ellis Academy and the Henry Ford Academy: School of Creative Studies Elementary.

Detroit’s main district, which already had 24 schools in the program, had another 24 schools added to the list. In addition, the district was invited to include nine schools that state says are trending in the wrong direction. With those nine schools, almost half of the 106 schools in the main district could be in the program.

“These will be positive, yet pressing, conversations with the leaders of these districts to get their struggling schools back on track,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement. “We want to provide as many local and state-level partners as possible to help students in these schools be successful.”

The state’s press release has more details and the full list of Michigan schools that have been added to the program — as well as schools that have been removed from watch lists after showing improvement.

Here’s the list of Detroit schools that are now in the program:

Newly added:

  • David Ellis Academy (charter)
  • Henry Ford Academy: School of Creative Studies-Elementary (charter)
  • Blackwell Institute
  • Brewer Elementary-Middle School
  • Carstens Elementary-Middle School
  • Central High School
  • Cody Academy of Public Leadership
  • Detroit International Academy for Young Women
  • Dixon Elementary
  • Dossin Elementary-Middle School
  • Earhart Elementary-Middle School
  • East English Village Prep Academy
  • Duke Ellington at Beckham
  • Emerson Elementary-Middle Schools
  • Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School
  • King High School
  • John R. King Academy and Performing Arts Academy
  • Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School
  • Mann Elementary
  • Marshall Elementary
  • Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy
  • Nobel Elementary-Middle School
  • Palmer Park Prep Academy
  • Pulaski Elementary-Middle School
  • Schulze Elementary-Middle School
  • Wayne Elementary

Schools that have the option to join the program:  

  • Academy of the Americas (Optional)
  • Bagley Elementary (Optional)
  • Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts (Optional)
  • Carver Elementary-Middle School (Optional)
  • Edison Elementary (Optional)
  • Ludington Magnet Middle School (Optional)
  • Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody (Optional)
  • Nichols Elementary-Middle School (Optional)
  • Spain Elementary-Middle School (Optional)

Already in the program:

  • Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School
  • Bow Elementary-Middle School
  • Clark, J.E. Preparatory Academy
  • Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School @ Northwestern
  • Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody
  • Durfee Elementary-Middle School
  • Fisher Magnet Upper Academy
  • Gompers Elementary-Middle School
  • Henderson Academy
  • Marquette Elementary-Middle School
  • Mason Elementary School
  • Osborn Academy of Mathematics
  • Osborn College Preparatory Academy
  • Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy
  • Sampson Academy
  • Thirkell Elementary School
  • Burns Elementary-Middle School
  • Denby High School
  • Ford High School
  • Law Elementary School
  • Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School
  • Mumford High School
  • Pershing High School
  • Southeastern High School

Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission. Meet the local writers of Chalkbeat here on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast.

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The Pizza And Prizes Michigan Schools Use To Lure Students On Count Day Are ‘Unfortunate.’ But Is There A Better Way? http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/10/08/pizza-prizes-michigan-schools-use-lure-students-count-day-unfortunate-better-way/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/10/08/pizza-prizes-michigan-schools-use-lure-students-count-day-unfortunate-better-way/#respond Sun, 08 Oct 2017 15:56:47 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=38808 Schools across the state brought out donuts, dinosaurs, smoothies and all manor of special events on Wednesday to lure as many students to school as humanly possible.

It’s all part of a school funding system in Michigan that determines how much money schools receive from the state based on the number of students in class on “Count Day.”

“It’s not the best way to count students,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston told Chalkbeat. “But I just don’t know of a better way of doing it.”

Michigan is one of nine states that tie per-student funding to attendance on two or more school days, often one day in the fall and another in the spring. (In Michigan, fall count day determines 90 percent of per-pupil funding, while the spring day accounts for the other 10 percent.) Another 10 states use a single count day, while others use average attendance or other methods.

“It’s unfortunate,” Whiston said, that schools put so many resources into “pizza parties, fairs, festivals, anything to get kids excited about coming to school.” But other counting methods like using average attendance would also be problematic, he said, because schools with low average attendance still need enough money to meet the needs of all enrolled students.

“That doesn’t really work because if the student is there, we have to have a teacher,” Whiston said. “If they miss so many days, we still have to have the teacher.”

Michigan began relying on Count Day when it changed to a per-pupil funding system more than 20 years ago. But the day has become more crucial in recent years as the state’s shrinking school-age population has forced districts to aggressively compete for students, said Craig Thiel, research director at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

“Over the past 10-12 years, as the public school pie has decreased in size, the smaller pie has been sliced in many more pieces. Districts compete vigorously for their slice of the pie,” Thiel said.

In Detroit, schools partnered with businesses, artists and other groups to encourage students to show up and be counted.

Students at Sampson Webber Academy partnered with artist Alex Cook and Beyond Basics, a non-profit literacy organization, to paint a mural.

At Coleman A. Young Elementary School, UAW-Ford donated 50,000 ID kits to all district students for Count Day. (The brother of this school’s principal is with the UAW.) Each kit contains two inkless fingerprint cards, two DNA collection swabs and two activator cards. After collecting the samples and completing the activator card with the child’s information, parents can store the kit for safe keeping. If needed, it can be delivered to authorities to help track the missing child.

A dinosaur visited Michigan Math and Science Academy in Warren:

Detroit’s main district put together a countdown video to make sure kids understood the importance of the day.

Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission. You can learn more about the writers of Chalkbeat through an interview with them on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast.

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The Prospect Of A $30,000 Pay Cut Pushed This Teacher Out Of Detroit Schools And To The Suburbs http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/10/06/prospect-30000-pay-cut-pushed-teacher-detroit-schools-suburbs/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/10/06/prospect-30000-pay-cut-pushed-teacher-detroit-schools-suburbs/#respond Fri, 06 Oct 2017 20:18:10 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=38805 When the school year began at Detroit’s Central High School last month, a beloved teacher was missing.

Quincy Stewart, who was featured in a June Chalkbeat story about his innovative use of music to teach students about African-American history, had been determined to stay at Central.

“I do this is because I’m a black man and these are black children,” he told Chalkbeat last spring. “These children have been robbed by this system from the cradle until right now … And when they walk in my classroom, all I feel is love for them.”

But love, unfortunately, doesn’t pay the bills.

Stewart was one of scores of teachers in the Education Achievement Authority, the now-dissolved state-run recovery district, who faced massive pay cuts when their schools reverted to Detroit’s main district in July.

In Stewart’s case, that pay cut came to $30,000 — more than a 40 percent reduction to the $72,000 he made last year.  

“They put me in a position where I had to make a decision between being able to pay my bills and staying dedicated to the students that I was there to serve,” Stewart said. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000? I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”

Stewart, who was also featured in a DPTV broadcast this summer, said he felt he had no choice but to accept a higher-paying job in the suburbs.

“It was a hard decision but I had to go where I could at least pay my bills,” he said. “It’s very easy for people to sit on the sidelines and judge that, but … I would have literally had to work there and work a part-time job just to survive.”

Stewart is one of dozens of EAA teachers who did not return to their jobs this year — a major reason why Detroit’s main district is still struggling to fill 150 teacher vacancies.

The district says that nearly a third of those vacancies are in 11 former EAA schools — even though those schools account for a small portion of teaching positions across the district’s 106 schools.  

With those jobs unfilled, some students are in classrooms led by non-certified substitutes. Others are missing out on programs like the one at Central. The school is not currently offering music at all.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district is working to aggressively recruit teachers. He told Chalkbeat last week that he is talking with the city teachers union to negotiate incentives for teachers in “hard to staff” positions. But that program will prioritize special education teachers and those who teach core subjects like reading and math. It won’t help fill Stewart’s position at Central.

“We have to make decisions … based on where the challenges are greatest,” Vitti said.

The pay cuts imposed on teachers from former EAA schools is only partly driven by the fact that the union-negotiated pay scale for teachers in the main district is lower than what many EAA teachers had been making.

Another factor was that the new teachers contract, signed by the union and district this summer, offers educators who come in from outside the district just two years of salary credit regardless of their experience.

That’s far less than some Michigan districts where teachers can change jobs without giving up pay. And it’s a different policy than the EAA used. The recovery district had paid teachers more if they came in with experience in other schools.

Vitti says he regrets that senior teachers in the EAA faced steep pay cuts but the main district had to consider teachers who’ve endured years of pay cuts and wage freezes in Detroit schools.

“We can’t just increase pay for a group of teachers that are coming in from the outside,” Vitti told Central’s principal Abraham Sohn on the first day of school as the two walked by the school’s empty band room where Stewart used to teach. “That doesn’t send the right message.”

Vitti has vowed to raise teacher salaries in the near future, calling that a priority for the district.

Someday, Stewart said, wages might be high enough that he’ll consider returning to Detroit. But for now, he’s committed to his new job at Harper Woods High School, just east of the city, he said. He urged the district to find a way to increase pay for all of its teachers.

“If they really truly cared about having seasoned, quality teachers, they would make an effort to pay them,” he said. “Even a teacher with a doctorate is only going to make maybe $60,000 and that’s just preposterous. You owe more in student loans than you make in salary.”

Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission. You can learn more about the writers of Chalkbeat through an interview with them on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast.

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Here’s What Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti Says He Can Do By Next Year http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/09/23/heres-detroit-schools-superintendent-nikolai-vitti-says-can-next-year/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/09/23/heres-detroit-schools-superintendent-nikolai-vitti-says-can-next-year/#respond Sat, 23 Sep 2017 23:07:04 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=38570

It could be years before Detroiters see significant improvement in their struggling city schools, but Detroit’s new schools boss says there are some very specific ways that he expects to see some progress by next year.

Among them: improvements on test scores, attendance rates, teacher hiring and the amount of money district grads receive in college scholarships.

Those goals are spelled out in the documents that the Detroit school board plans to use to evaluate the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

State law requires districts to evaluate superintendents on both their skills and how students perform on things like annual state exams, but Vitti asserted at a forum last week that his evaluation is “more rigorous than any superintendent in the state.”

The evaluation, he said, spells out “very clear metrics linked to reading proficiency, math proficiency, college readiness, college going, graduation rates, fully staffed status for teachers.”

The Detroit district faces countless problems including some of the nation’s lowest test scores, buildings in poor repair and a reputation so diminished among Detroiters that fewer than half of the city’s children are currently enrolled in the district’s schools.

Since arriving in May, Vitti has promised that he can transform the Detroit schools, but cautions that change won’t happen overnight.

“People have to be patient,” he said at last week’s forum. “We’re going to work with a sense of urgency. We’re working night and day, but this is not going to be rebuilt in a year. It took two decades in my calculation to break one of the best urban school districts in this country … We’re not going to rebuild it in a year.”

To see what Vitti says he can do in a year, read his evaluation targets below. The targets were approved by the Detroit school board last week.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit shares their content with their permission.

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Inside Nikolai Vitti’s Early Effort To Transform Detroit’s Battered Public Schools http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/09/11/inside-nikolai-vittis-early-effort-transform-detroits-battered-public-schools/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/09/11/inside-nikolai-vittis-early-effort-transform-detroits-battered-public-schools/#respond Tue, 12 Sep 2017 02:29:58 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=38288

Three months after taking on one of the most daunting tasks in American education, Nikolai Vitti was having a fit over pizza — $340,000 worth of pizza.

Vitti, Detroit’s new school superintendent, had just discovered that the district had set aside that eye-popping sum of money last year to pay Domino’s Pizza for what he assumed were hundreds of thousands of slices for parties in schools.

He was asked if he wanted to do the same for next year.  

“Do you really think for a minute I’m going to bring a contract to the board at $340,000 for Domino’s?!” he asked an aide. “That would be like — ‘Here — write a front page story about how inefficient this district is.’ Are you insane? Are you really insane!?”

In his first months on the job, Vitti had seen what he described as a shocking lack of basic financial and academic systems in the district. He’d seen contracts that were nonsensical, payments that had slipped through the cracks. He knew of principals who’d apparently given up on getting support from the district and had turned to a brand of survivalism to get what they needed for their schools.

“It is truly a district that has been mismanaged for over a decade,” he says.

But even by the standards of what he’d seen so far, the pizza contract seemed extreme.

“I love the explanation on why we need a Domino’s contract because it’s wholesale, right?” Vitti vented to an aide. “To reduce the price? And then everything else we do we have 700 vendors?! We decided to get it right for pizza but we didn’t get it right for toilet paper?”

But a day later, something surprising happened with that pizza contract.

As Vitti convened a meeting with top advisors, he learned that the Domino’s contract was not actually for parties. It was for a special pizza that Domino’s had created for schools called a “smart slice” that uses whole wheat flour and lower amounts of fat and salt to give kids a healthy alternative to less-popular lunch offerings.

That’s when a contract that Vitti had been lambasting for days became an inspiration.

“If we’re using Domino’s as a way to incentivize kids to eat … then why not do a bid for Chinese food?” he asked.

“Or Subway,” an aide suggested.

“We could get local businesses,” Vitti said. “A ton of local businesses! As long as they meet the nutritional value. … Think of all the things we could do with a Detroit small business connection to it!”

In fact, Vitti said, “if we really want to talk big, in every high school, you could have kids that are working to prep food and all that.”

“See,” he told his advisors gathered in a conference room adjoining his office in the district’s headquarters in Detroit’s iconic Fisher Building. “We went from Domino’s to a complete conversation about innovation. That’s why you have to have the conversation.”

* * *

Improving on pizza contracts might not seem like the kind of thing that can fix a school district like Detroit’s.

The schools here, which have some of the lowest test scores in the country, have become a national symbol of educational crisis. They remain the largest roadblock to the city’s resurgence nearly three years after its emergence from bankruptcy. The heralded improvements in the city’s downtown have had virtually no effect on its schools.

But Vitti, the 40-year-old father of four who took over the Detroit district last spring, has promised not just to improve the district’s 106 schools. He says he can transform them.

“We’re going to make this the best urban school district in the country,” he says in speeches and interviews.

He knows the odds are stacked incalculably against him — he felt it on the first day of school, when the system had 250 teacher vacancies, despite his public commitment to fill every position.

But he’s determined to give Detroiters something they haven’t had for their schools in a generation. He’s promised to give them hope.

If he’s going to do that, he says — or if he’s at least going to make some progress in that direction — he has to look for ideas in places like pizza contracts, where other leaders might see little potential for change.

He has to move beyond what he calls “compliance thinking” where decisions are made only to conform with legal requirements, to try to imagine a different future for the district.

And he has to do that while simultaneously attempting to bring order to a system that he describes as in total disarray.

Much of that disarray is well known: buildings that are crumbling and dirty; a severe teacher shortage that has robbed children of quality instruction; conditions so dismal that a federal lawsuit last year alleged they violate Detroit children’s right to basic literacy.

The district’s reputation has been so ravaged among Detroit parents that tens of thousands of families have fled the district for charter or suburban schools in recent years — fueled in part by the liberal school choice laws in Michigan that were promoted by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary.

The exodus of families had left the district in such dire financial straits that it only avoided bankruptcy last year when the state put up $617 million to create a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

But those are just the problems you can see from the outside. Vitti understood them well before he left his job in May running the schools in Jacksonville, Florida, to take over the schools in his hometown. [He’s from nearby Dearborn Heights.]

On the inside, Vitti has discovered that the district he’s inherited is utterly broken.

“I mean we lack the systems for everything!” Vitti says. “Everything! For hiring teachers, onboarding teachers, paying teachers, ordering books, adopting books, cleaning buildings, seeing contracts, what contracts there are, how they’re executed, why they’re executed, what they’re used for, what they’re not used for.”

* * *

Since arriving in Detroit last spring, Vitti says he’s seen “pockets of excellence” in schools where devoted teachers have managed to weather years of turmoil and decline.

But when he talks about the the district’s central office, he becomes visibly angry.

What makes it all so infuriating, he says, is that the men from whom he inherited the district were supposed to be financial experts.

The state of Michigan had seized control of the district in 2009, citing a financial emergency, and installed a series of financial managers — five different men — who ran the district for eight years until the new school board took over in January.

Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti takes a call in his office on the 14th floor of Detroit’s iconic Fisher Building. Photo: Erin Einhorn

The loss of local control had been painful for Detroiters.

A school board chosen by voters had been rendered largely impotent while the men running the district had slashed teacher pay and shuttered dozens of schools with minimal community discussion. The closings accelerated enrollment declines — fewer than half of Detroit children remain in the district  — and left some city neighborhoods without any schools at all.

As an educator who worked as a teacher in North Carolina and New York City before entering a PhD program at Harvard University that trained urban superintendents, Vitti says he’s not surprised that the emergency managers didn’t get the academics right.

But you’d think they’d have figured out the nuts and bolts, he says.

“At a minimum, you would think an emergency financial manager would know nothing about education but would focus on systems and processes because that’s what Detroit lacked,” Vitti says. “And what I actually see is, you know, walking into this district, there was no vision for how a district or a central office supports schools.”

Example: The district promised bonuses to teachers who took hard-to-staff positions last year but, somehow, the bonus checks didn’t arrive when they were supposed to.

“It was frustrating,” says teachers union leader Ivy Bailey. “They were calling us asking, what’s the problem? And we didn’t know.”

The problem, Vitti learned, was that “the left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing. This was negotiated by labor relations. It was somewhat understood by HR but then finance wouldn’t know about it.”

Another example: Here in a district where the teaching shortage has meant children have gone months without a certified math teacher, people who applied for jobs weren’t getting hired.

“We had teachers, let’s say at the job fair, that had committed to joining the district,” Vitti says. “That teacher leaves the job fair thinking that they’re going to Denby [High School]. The principal thinks the teacher is going to Denby and then no one’s followed up with the teacher.”

The teacher eventually gets an offer from another district and takes that job instead, he says.

The examples go on and on.

The central office took so long to approve expenses that principals had taken to buying things on their own. That led to corruption and to inefficiencies that Vitti’s team is uncovering, like the seven schools that all used the same online learning tool last year.

No one negotiated a multi-school discount so every school paid full price, Vitti said. And the schools weren’t in contact to determine if a different program might have been better.

“We shouldn’t be using anything at just seven schools unless it’s a pilot,” Vitti told members of his cabinet as they gathered for a meeting in his office. “And if we’re going to do pilots, then they should be free and there should be a whole lot of principal buy-in as to why they’re being used.”

The last emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, declined to comment on the substance of Vitti’s criticism, sending a statement saying only that he wishes “Dr. Vitti and the entire staff at DPSCD the very best in meeting the challenges of educating its students.” The governor’s office and State Treasury Department, which appointed and oversaw the emergency managers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Cleaning up systems is essential if Vitti wants to take the district in a different direction, says Robert Peterkin, the Harvard professor who, for 20 years, led the urban superintendents program where Vitti earned his PhD.

“What he’s got to do is establish these basic procedures while educating all the kids,” Peterkin says. “I know that sounds impossible but these systems don’t have to be invented. …Those things are not rocket science. Recruitment of teachers. We know how to do that. We know how to have a contract system. We really do. We just need to have somebody who’s going to go out and get it done.”

But Vitti says the mismanagement infuriates him “because it limits what you can do now.”

“That not only hurt the city, it hurt children and it hurt public education and now we have to make up for the sins of the past while still moving forward and creating results, which is daunting,” he says. “It’s possible, but daunting.”

* * *

If Vitti is daunted privately, he betrays little hint of concern as he travels around the city.

He gives confident speeches and interviews  — typically from the gut, without using talking points or prep materials — that are filled with promises for the kind of wholesale improvement that seems unlikely in a nation where the box scores for urban superintendents show far more losses than wins.

He’s hardly the first superintendent to arrive in a city making grand predictions for the future.

“The idea of the school superintendent as the person who can fix it all is at least as old as the 20th century,” says David Cohen, a professor of educational policy at Harvard University and the University of Michigan.

But superintendents are largely powerless to address things like residential segregation and fiscal inequality that helped destroy urban schools in the first place, Cohen says. “The problems in [urban schools] have been created by decades of government policies …There’s no way that the educational problems in these systems can be solved by any particular superintendent.”

In Detroit, he says, the challenge is even greater. “Detroit just faces huge problems and many of them are not of the district’s making and are not within the district’s control.”

Yet Vitti says he plans to put nearly every waking hour he has into the effort.

He sleeps just three hours most nights, sometimes cranking out emails until 3 a.m. before catching some winks until dawn, he says. Other nights, he’ll go to bed early, around midnight, and wake up at 3 a.m. to respond to emails.

“We have to manage [the district] and transform the district at the same time and that requires a different work ethic and energy level,” he says.

Vitti doesn’t expect his aides or advisors to put in those kinds of hours, but he has little patience for anyone who isn’t moving with as much urgency as he is. He stacked his team with people he trusts to keep up the pace, firing dozens of longtime school officials and technocrats and replacing many with people he knew from his days working in Florida.

“Tick, tick, tick,” he chided an aide when she reported that she hadn’t yet made an important hire.

“I’m working, working, working,” she responded. “I thought I found somebody but they’re not interested.”

Despite his sometimes abrasive tone, Vitti is not outwardly combative. Unlike some superintendents who’ve blazed into districts on a promise to push out bad teachers or to jump start performance by shutting down schools, the words he speaks in Detroit are largely the ones that parents and community leaders want to hear.

He talks of the “whole child,” and finding ways to meet children’s social and emotional needs instead of just drilling them on standardized tests. He talks of “parent engagement” and community partnerships. And he and his wife have enrolled their four children — including two who have special needs — in a district school.

Vitti spent his first months in Detroit on a listening tour, meeting with parents, teachers, students and community leaders to assess the needs of the district.

When teachers complained that students were spending too much time taking tests, he reduced mandatory student testing. He also promised to raise teacher pay.

And he’s paying attention to what students learn, something that he says has been neglected. He’s pushing a district-wide curriculum audit to make sure Detroit kids are getting an education that meets national standards. And he wants a teacher evaluation system, based on research, that supports teachers and helps them hone their craft.

If Vitti is successful, the tone he sets now will be why, said Peterkin, the Harvard professor who helped guide Vitti through his doctorate.

“I don’t think that any modern superintendent can see themselves as a do-it-all, know-it-all, great man theory kind of leader,” Peterkin says. “He needs a team. He certainly needs the school board. He needs community support. He needs to not have anti-public school voices tearing him down. He needs strong parental support and a business community that wakes up and realizes it needs its public schools but I think he can lead that effort.”

* * *

In the three days that this reporter followed Vitti, he zig-zagged around the city, giving speeches, meeting with potential partners, and directing staff on everything from the best way to measure the condition of school facilities to whether or not a PowerPoint presentation for a school board meeting should have photos or bullet points.

He doesn’t take notes in meetings and yet seems to keep countless details about contracts, personnel — even the calorie counts of his favorite snacks — in his head.

And while he’s listening to briefings, he’s also searching around for new ideas.

During a meeting about creating internships for students at a district vocational school, he spotted the school’s slogan — ”where great minds are developed” — and pointed it out to a school board member, Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who was sitting with him.

Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti typically doesn’t take notes in meetings. Photo: Erin Einhorn

“What do you think about our logo for the district: Where Detroit Minds are Developed?” he asked her. “Or where Detroit Minds Matter? That’s a good one too. We’ve gotta figure that out.”

And as he met with the heads of a prominent local museum, he came up with an idea for an entirely new school.

The museum execs had largely wanted to discuss bringing more students to visit on field trips when they asked to meet with Vitti. He had immediately signed on, mentioning a “cultural passport” he hopes to create that would enable students to visit an opera, a symphony or great works of art in every school year. But he didn’t stop there.

Sitting in an office upstairs from the museum’s exhibit halls, a grander, more ambitious idea seemed to pop into his head.

“What about a deep partnership with a K-8 school?” Vitti asked. “Something similar to a magnet school?”

The museum and district could team up on “deep training for the principal and teachers,” he said.

The school could build on the museum’s exhibits to teach art, history and other subjects.

“Imagine everything our students could experience!” he said.

The museum execs seemed stunned — but delighted — by the proposal.

“We would love that!” one exclaimed.

There are countless logistical and practical details that would have to be worked out before a school like this could be created.

It’s too early to tell whether Vitti has the political skills and financial resources to take any of his ideas beyond the concept phase. The fragile nature of the discussion is why the museum officials asked not to be publicly identified with such a preliminary proposal.

And no matter what he does, Vitti is operating in a tenuous environment. The school board supports him now, but could eventually turn on him. The state has stepped out of Detroit’s school operations, but a new governor could step back in. Those things have happened repeatedly in this city before.

But, in that moment, this idea — and that different future — seemed entirely possible.

“Terrific!” the museum executive said. “This is exactly the kind of work we want to do!”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission.

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Their Charter School Was In Debt, So Teachers Won’t Get Paid http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/07/27/charter-school-debt-teachers-wont-get-paid/ http://www.dailydetroit.com/2017/07/27/charter-school-debt-teachers-wont-get-paid/#respond Thu, 27 Jul 2017 16:41:10 +0000 http://www.dailydetroit.com/?p=37592 Furious teachers at a recently shuttered Detroit charter school were notified Wednesday that they won’t be paid thousands of dollars they earned during the last school year.

Teachers at the Michigan Technical Academy had contracts that required the school to pay them through the summer for work they did during the school year. But the school’s management company, Matchbook Learning, alerted teachers in an email Wednesday that the money would instead go to pay off the school’s debts.

“Last Friday, Matchbook Learning became aware that the holders of MTA’s outstanding bond debt are refusing to allow use of funds for any summer payroll and instead, are requiring that any available funds be used toward payment of the bond debt,” Matchbook’s CEO Sajan George told teachers in the email. “We are disappointed and deeply saddened by this development because this means funds will not be there for July or August payroll.”

The school, which Chalkbeat wrote about last fall, closed its doors forever last month when Central Michigan University revoked the school’s charter citing academic and financial difficulties.

The school was one seven Detroit area charter schools that closed this year including five that had been overseen by Central Michigan.

Matchbook Learning, which had been running the school since 2015, had a contract with the school’s board that expired on June 30, George wrote in the email to teachers.

“Matchbook Learning never received and does not expect to receive any funds from the MTA Board, CMU or the bondholders to fund payment of any July or August payroll — meaning Matchbook Learning is not in a position to make payment to you,” George wrote. “Unfortunately, the closing of MTA has had a severe effect on everyone involved. We thank you for your time at MTA, sympathize and empathize with your position, and wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

Chalkbeat Detroit

George told Chalkbeat that his New Jersey-based school management organization, a non-profit, hasn’t been paid by the school’s board since February due to lack of funds. Matchbook is owed what he characterized as “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

He said he knew Matchbook wouldn’t be paid for the last few months of the school year but that the organization stayed until the last day of class in June.

“If we left, the employees wouldn’t get paid and the school would shut down,” George said.

He said Matchbook asked the school board to approve payments that would enable the teachers to get paid in July and August. The board knew it would receive payments from the state in July and August and authorized a portion of that money to go toward paying teachers. But the bondholders are priority creditors, meaning they get paid first. The bondholders have refused to allow money to go to the teachers, George said. 

“Ultimately it wasn’t in our control,” he said.

The school borrowed about $16 million for building improvements when it first opened and only about $1 million had been paid off when the school closed last month, George said. Had the school stayed open, it would have continued to receive money from the state that could have been used to make payments on the debt. Without money coming in, the creditors moved to collect as much as they could. 

Angry teachers say they’re contacting lawyers in hopes of trying to collect what they’re owed.

“That’s money that we’ve all worked for,” said Maeve Rochon, a kindergarten teacher who said she’s owed around $5,000. “That’s for time we spent in those kids’ lives, doing our jobs. We all stuck it out to the end and now you’re telling us the money we worked for, we’re not going to get?”

Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, said there’s not much the university can do to help the teachers.

“Some creditors of Michigan Technical Academy have ordered an acceleration of payments due on Academy loans,” Brzezinski wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The acceleration of payments means that the Academy received no funds from the scheduled July 20, 2017 state school aid payment sent by the state of Michigan. The Academy board and the Center had been working with the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Treasury officials to ensure continued flow of state aid through July and August to allow the Academy to meet payroll and other outstanding obligations. Unfortunately, the decision of the creditors to accelerate payments under the Academy loans means that there will not be sufficient funds for the Academy to process the July 31, 2017 scheduled payroll and there may not be sufficient funds to meet the August payrolls.”

Brzezinski encouraged teachers to contact Matchbook or the Wage and Hour Division of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission. Meet the local writers of Chalkbeat here on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast.

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